9 of Hearts: ABCDEFGH – a sort of review of The ABC Murders (BBC, 2018)

Looking at an adaptation of a work you are familiar with into a new medium is always a bit difficult, particularly if it is a work you are very fond of. First of all, of course, there are some changes that are required simply because of the new medium; in the case of books being made into visual media, this is often the loss of the narration, whether it is from a character or a general omniscient voice. Beyond that, all manner of changes can be made. Thus, when looking at the adaptation, I find myself torn between evaluating the new work on its own merits, and evaluating it as an adaptation of what I am familiar with.

I try to do both, using three simple questions.
1.) Why adapt this work? What is being gained from the adaptation?
2.) What changes have been made, and what do I think they add or subtract from the work
3.) When examined as a standalone piece, what do I think of the adaptation?

With the first question, we are going to need some background context. I am rather afraid I am going to need to spoil the ending to discuss this, so I advise anyone unfamiliar with the story who doesn’t want to be spoiled to turn away here, and come back once you’re read it. If you either know the story or don’t care, click the more button below and let us continue.

The ABC Murders was first published in January 1936. Written by Agatha Christie, it is the eleventh novel to feature the Belgium detective Hercule Poirot, as well as two reoccurring characters, Detective Inspector Japp of Scotland Yard and Arthur Hastings, Poirot’s long time companion, who narrates most of the story in first person, rather like Watson in the Sherlock Holmes stories (the third person sections are supposedly reconstructed by Hastings later). The first person perspective from a sidekick is not at all unusual for detective stories, particularly of the era Christie was writing in, since it allows for facts and the motivations of the detective to be hidden from the audience while also allowing for more freedom in commentary and characterisation from the author (indeed, another Poirot book famously uses this to hide the true killer). One of the challenges with writing murder mysteries based around a character is that the stories themselves are, almost by definition, plot driven; it is the murder that sets things in motion, and the physical details of the events is far more important than most stories. It gets easier for series like Poirot, since you can use multiple stories and murders to reveal new facets of his personality, but often a simple solution is to make the detective a strong enough character from the start that you can obtain a sense of personality from whatever story they are in. Poirot definitely falls into this category; the first description of him given to us in the first book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, holds true basically until the end.

The plot of The ABC Murders goes as follows. Poirot receives a mocking letter from an individual called A.B.C., who warns of a murder of someone with the initials AA in a town with the name beginning with A. Soon enough, Alice Ascher of Andover is killed, with an ABC rail guide left beside her. Another letter arrives, warning of a second murder, this one being B; Elizabeth “Betty” Barnard of Bexhill. The third letter is delayed due to a mistake on the address, but Sir Carmichael Clarke is murdered in Churston. Each of the victims has an ABC rail guide lying next to them, and each brings in a new collection of side characters; Ascher’s niece, Betty’s fiancé and sister, and Clarke’s dying wife, his brother and his young assistant, who are roped into what Poirot calls a Legion to help solve the case. All three murders are discovered to be linked by a man appearing in the area selling silk stockings. A fourth and final murder is announced in Doncaster, but the murderer strikes someone who’s name does not match the pattern. The main suspect for much of a book is a travelling stocking salesman with epilepsy, with the initials A.B. Cust, the man who was seen in the area around each murder. However, he is revealed to be a red herring, a patsy thrown up by the true murderer, Franklin, Clarke’s brother, who gave him a list of places to go to.

The main trick of The ABC Murders is one of motive. The characters, and thus, the narrator, focus on the idea that the motive is that of a serial murderer, whatever that may be. Someone with a simple logic created from a bizarre starting point. This focus hides the obvious motive that C. Clarke was a rich man, with a dying wife, who was planning to marry his assistant once she died. By killing him now, Franklin was able to ensure that he would end up with the wealth after his sister in law died.

Christie’s works in general move well into visual media such as film and television mainly because of the strengths and weaknesses of her as a writer. She specialises in the structure of her plots, and her dialogue between characters, both of which tend to map well onto the screen, but I often find, outside of a few moments, she struggles with the actual narration and descriptions, which in a visual medium is handled by props, wardrobe and set design, allowing them to be improved (she does nail some character descriptions however). As one of the most famous Poirot books, The ABC Murders has been adapted multiple times, most notably in 1992 with David Suchet for the British TV channel ITV. The 1992 version is mostly faithful to the book, with some minor changes here and there. We’ll touch back on the Suchet version later, but my main focus here is on the far more recent 3-part BBC miniseries, adapted by Sarah Phelps and starring John Malkovich as Poirot. Phelps had previously adapted two other Christie stories, And Then There Were None and Ordeal By Innocence, both standalone stories, and is known for making fairly radical changes to the stories and for the cold, fairly depressing tone of her work. In And Then There Were None this tone worked well, as it is a rather bleak story; the title is a clue as to how many of the characters survive.

I’m going to be blunt at this point, and say most of the changes to the book in the 2018 adaptation don’t really work, and there are a lot of changes considering how much of the story is kept intact. There’s enough changes I feel that are worth discussing that I’m splitting this across sections C to E.

One of the most obvious changes, and one that caused most uproar when revealed, was the removal of the character of Captain Hastings, Poirot’s long time friend and the narrator of the story. Hasting appears in only eight of the Poirot books, including the very first and the very last, but he has become a well established part of the mythos; the Suchet version actually added him into a number of stories where he was not initially present.

As I noted above, structurally Hastings is less important in a film or television adaptation due to the story no longer using him as a narrator, removing one of his three roles. The second role, being an audience surrogate who the detective can fill in at the end, can be played by essentially any character, and so just on a structural level for an adaptation Hastings is really only needed for his third role, that of Poirot’s closest friend, which allows us to get a better glimpse at the detective’s mindset and emotional state.

Phelps has said that she removed Hastings because she didn’t want anyone to be there in that role for Poirot, rather, she wants the audience to see Poirot alone. “I want him vulnerable and ageing because then you see the measure of the man. If Hercule wants us to know anything then he’ll tell us.”

I understand where this is coming from, and despite my great affection for both characters I am not really bothered by the removal of either Captain Hastings or Inspector Japp of Scotland Yard. Both characters can be, and indeed in a lot of other Christie stories are, replaced by other characters in the same role, and if the desire is to explore Poirot by placing the audience in that role, that’s not inherently a bad idea.

The problem is, as with so many of the changes to the story, that it just isn’t an idea that much is done with. Poirot’s mindset isn’t really explored in deeply; a lot of the work of explaining him is given to a repeated flashback to his earlier career, but it isn’t well linked to his modern situation.

One fact that needs to be acknowledged about The ABC Murders is that it sits in a wide position with its tone. On one hand, it is about a series of bloody murders, designed to look like the work of a mysterious serial killer, being used to disguise a murder simply born out of greed, pinning the murders on an epileptic man who comes out of his fits to find a murder weapon in this. On the other hand, the murders are dealt out using the rather goofy method of “find someone with a first and last name that starts with a particular letter who lives in a place that also begins with that first letter”, and is solved by a small dandy who’s most reliable description is that of how his head looks like an egg with a spectacular moustache on it. This contrast between the darkness of the murders and the somewhat goofy air of the rest of the story is the hallmark of the cosy murder genre, one that Poirot, Marple and more modern works such as Midsomer Murders fall directly into.

A lot of the changes to the story in the miniseries are dedicated to resolving this contrast by moving the story more towards the dark and gritty types of murder story. And okay, there’s definitely a lot there to work with already, but you can definitely go too far.

For example, Cust’s landlady now pimps out her daughter Lily to her male lodgers and spends most of her time drunk, Betty’s fiancé is now, rather than just being rather hot headed, an emotionally abusive and controlling man who has moved on to using her sister, with a very notable change where, in the book, Poirot plays matchmaker between him and the niece of Ascher, the first victim, now he is actively working to break up the relationship between him and Betty’s elder sister. Inspector Japp, Poirot’s long time friend on the police force, has died of a heart attack, Clarke’s assistant is now actively aware of the murders but goes along with it as long as Franklin showers her with expensive gifts, and, most gratuitously of all, Cust now engages in self flagellation, getting Lily to stand on open wounds on his back in high heels. Combined with the muted colours of the piece, with production far similar to modern gritty detective series like The Bridge and the removal of qualities such as Poirot’s eccentricity that might counteract it, the miniseries spins right past “realistic and gritty” into the territory of the farcical. So desperately to be taken seriously, that it just becomes more of a joke.

E is for ENEMY
The other big change made to the story outside of changes to Poirot himself is the motive of the murderer. In the book, Franklin sends the letters to Poirot because it allows him to slightly delay the third letter by getting Poirot’s address deliberately wrong, which prevents his true target, the third victim, from being forewarned about the attack. There’s no other particular reason; if he had sent it to a newspaper or the police, a misspelling was less likely to prevent the letter from reaching them.

This motive is changed substantially in the miniseries. Now, Poirot was the guest of honour at the birthday party of Franklin’s sister-in-law, who fascinated Franklin with his series of party games based around murder. Franklin became friends with Poirot and became obsessed with matching wits with him, wanting to learn about Poirot both as a friend and as an enemy. His final defeat doesn’t come, as in the book, when Poirot reveals that he has removed the bullets from Franklin’s gun so the murderer cannot commit suicide to avoid the law, but when Poirot refuses to acknowledge him as his equal. While the motive of the cash from his brother is still sort of there, most of it has been swallowed up into this new obsession with Poirot.

So anyway I kind of hate this change.

It’s a change made a lot with adaptations of detective stories, where the actual mystery and motive is made to take a backseat to the murderer’s fascination with the detective, their desire to match wits. Stephen Moffat’s Sherlock, also done by the BBC, ran this into the ground with Moriaty, and here it just feels stale and done. This motivation rarely adds anything to the story for me, nor does it really allow us to explore the characters in greater detail. It just feels like the most easy way to make the story more dramatic, if you don’t feel that stopping a serial murderer is dramatic, mysterious or compelling enough. In Sherlock, it was used to double down on Moffat’s idea that everything should come back to the main character, a problem that also plagued a large section of his run on Doctor Who, but here it isn’t even really used for that. Quite honestly it feels like padding. The ABC Murders is not a story that can be dragged out for three hours, and this allows you to throw an extra monologue at the end about how obsessed the murderer is with Poirot.

It’s made worse by the fact that the original motive is still there, with this added on top. That’s going to feel awkward already, but when you have a weak motive being added to a story famous because of the way it handles the true motivation of the murderer, it’s going to feel like you took a wonderful cake and then shoved a turkey twizzler on top. Just…blegh.

Let’s go back to our three questions from earlier. I think I’ve made my thoughts on questions two and three clear (most of the changes I feel detract from the story, turning up the grittiness of the story so high it loops back to farce), but I want to return to the third question. And then I want to go off on a tangent.

The most obvious reason for adapting a work like this is kind of cynical. Brand recognition. The ABC Murders, Poirot and Agatha Christie are all famous names, and there are plenty of other Agatha Christie works that you can move on to adapt if this one goes well. Indeed, this is the third such adaptation by the BBC. I’m not accusing Phelps of doing this, although I’d be very surprised if it didn’t factor somewhere in the decision making process at some level of the BBC.

The second reason, exploring the work and its cultural impact, seems to be more her style. I should mention that she didn’t direct the miniseries, and while she is being given a lot of focus in the discussion of the adaptation, and is the one who pops up most often explaining the choices in the series, I don’t know exactly how much of the miniseries is due to her. When I say it is more her style I mean in terms of what I have seen in interviews with her, such as the quote above about wanting to explore Poirot without Hastings, not that she had complete control over the miniseries.

In the internet circles I am in, exploring a work by making changes to it and retelling it falls under the category of fanfiction. Specifically, this is an alternative universe (or AU) fanfiction of Poirot where he is a former priest and not a dandy former policeman (we’ll get back to that change). Fanfiction often gets a bad rap but I am a big fan of it; I’ve been reading and writing it since I was around thirteen or so, and it can be genuinely fascinating to explore how characters you are familiar with may behave in different scenarios, or how the story might change with change to a main character, or with a focus on a side one.

One of the issues though is working out the boundaries of where fanfiction is. Despite, say, the post-revival Doctor Who series being explicitly written by fans of the original, that kind of continuation is rarely considered fanfiction. I think however that the BBC adaptation of the ABC Murders falls neatly into the category of fanfiction, specifically the one that makes you ask the question “if you are going to change so much, but do so little with the actual changes…why not just make an original story?”

And that, I feel, is a bad sign for any adaptation.

G is for GOOD BITS
I’ve been fairly negative for this piece, mainly because I didn’t think that the miniseries was actually that good, and given that I was focusing on how it got changed in adaptation, that I specifically thought the changes made to it for adaptation were not that good, but I do want to finish off by noting some of the things I did think worked. At least, before I turn around and finish it on a bit of a negative note.

One of the changes that I liked was the far more prominent focus on the rise of British fascism prior to World War II, with Poirot, a foreign immigrant, tearing down a poster for a British fascist rally. Giving the story that kind of root in reality, particularly one that might be as tragically relevant to us now, given the ugly resurgence of neo-nazis and xenophobic attitude, feels much more what the series was aiming for (and missed) with its rather cartoonishly over the top monologuing villain and a scene where a woman walks over a man’s back in high heels, sticking the heel into open wounds.

On the acting side, Rupert Grint (aka Ron from Harry Potter) did a perfectly good job as the resident inspector Poirot butts heads with. I could probably pull out some more actors who handle their parts well, or individual scenes that I like, but to be honest most of the bits that weren’t bad tended to just be medicore at best. John Malkovitch’s acting was fine, it was just, well…

I am a very big fan of Poirot. I have read all the novels, even the Big Four (I don’t recommend it). My favourite episodes of the David Suchet versions feature in a folder on my computer labelled “My Happy Place”, and I will almost certainly write more about Poirot and the other cozy murder stories I love to curl up with, like Ms. Marple, on this blog.

While, for personal history reasons, Suchet’s version will probably be the one I gravitate to most, I can appreciate most adaptations of Poirot I have seen. Poirot is a very strong character, one that has a near consistent description of his appearance and quirks in every story he appears in, and part of the fun is seeing how different actors pull out different aspects of him.

Ultimately however, I came out of this feeling that they had managed to exorcise almost every part of the actual character of Poirot. His vague backstory as a high ranking member of the Belgium police before fleeing to the UK during the first world war has been changed to him being a priest (a change that, as with so many of the changes to the story, the adaptation doesn’t really do anything with), his fickle neatness obsession has been toned down to the point of being unnoticeable, and his almost gleeful pride in his abilities is lost in Malkovitch’s quiet, tired delivery.

Overall, I’m not sure who this Belgian detective who has starred in this murder mystery is. He’s decently enough acted, and I almost want to see him return simply to do something with the backstory of him being a priest and to explore why he ended up being a detective afterwards, a far greater jump than an ex-policeman becoming a private detective. But really, when you get down to it, he’s just not Hercule Poirot.

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